Je ne sais WHAT?

    It would be quite easy to claim I did it on purpose. I could have said, “Ha! I spelled it that way to see if you were paying attention.”
    It’s like an almost-daily routine in which I ask the Optic’s multi-talented, multi-tasking compositor Maria Sanchez what blasted keys I need to press to put a tilde or an accent mark over a letter. After she patiently explains, I reply, “I knew that. I was just testing you.”

    I wish I could say my spelling of “je ne sais quoi” had been correct. No matter how convincingly I told my sister, Dorothy Maestas, that I was spelling the term phonetically, she wasn’t buying it. Her years of studying French at San Diego State taught her the proper spelling. To exacerbate the matter, the Optic’s Meredith Britt wrote the French expression on our dry-erase board at the office, almost as if she’d been in cahoots with Dorothy.
    These people don’t let a single typo go unpunished. I should have checked a dictionary before spelling it, as I did last week, “ge ne se qua.”
    But what I was trying to convey was not so much the literal translation of it: “I don’t know what,” as the connotation, which meaning an undefinable special something. Clear?
    I didn’t think so. “Je ne sais quoi” would describe that special something possessed by a friend from my past, Sandy.
    Let’s start from the beginning: In the Midwest, I worked alongside a great photographer. He got offered a job at the Chicago Playboy Mansion, simply developing color film. The offer was twice what he was making, but Bob had one condition: he would consider the job only if he could take me along. They seemed interested. But on the way to the interview, Bob kept taking detours, killing time until he was able to explain to me that his wife didn’t approve of his being in such close proximity to those nubile playmates of remarkable arrangements and proportions.
    I reminded Bob that the likelihood of any patent Playmate proximity was practically improbable, inasmuch as we’d be working in the darkroom, not behind the camera. Still, his mind had been made up.
    I didn’t have a wife to deter me. As it turned out, neither of us ever stepped into Hugh Hefner’s playground. And we returned to our regular jobs at the newspaper.
    We discussed the attributes of the women whose images appear in the centerfold, and that’s when Bob introduced me to a young lady, Sandy, who lived just a few doors from me in a Chicago suburb. Bob was scheduled to photograph her for a sports supplement and told me that Sandy has a “certain je ne sais quoi.” Being neither French nor particularly literate, I imagined Sandy had a certain extra limb, or rabbit ears or perhaps a tooth growing out of her forehead. Regardless, if she has a “certain je ne sais quoi,” I wanted to see it for myself, not merely have Bob tell me about it.
    I helped Bob set up some quite tasteful poses, and there I discovered Sandy’s je ne sais quoi. Impressive, but it was nothing physical. Rather, her bubbly personality made her fun to be around. She had, by the way, been photographed for Playboy but apparently it never got published. As for us, whose interest in Sandy was totally professional, well, she showed us some quite modest facial shots which highlighted her “I don’t know what.”
    A tendency of many is to Frenchify words unnecessarily, possibly on the assumption that it heightens the culture. Walt Li Almanzar, who has taught languages in college, mentioned the annoying habit of television newscasters’ referring to that area of southern New Mexico known as the “mal pie,” when that area near Carrizozo is the Mal Pais, meaning “Badlands.”
    My dictionary includes a “t” in the pronunciation of “valet,” when it refers to a gentleman’s groomsman, but “valay” when it refers to parking.
    “Forte,” meaning a strong point, as in “Literature is her forte,” generally gets pronounced as if it were “FORtay” or “for TAY.” Some purists urge us to make it only one syllable when we refer to a strength, and two if it refers to loud, as in music.
    But strange usages and pronunciations aren’t entirely the domain of French. Our own Spanish yields some interesting translations.
    It’s tough to track down why the Spanish word for “pregnant” is “embarazada,” which is dismayingly close to the English word “embarrassed.” Did there used to be some Latino(a) stigma about pregnancy? Sara Harris, a retired languages professor at Highlands, recently mentioned that she’d been in a hospital emergency room, where she noticed a sign in English that urged any woman who was pregnant to notify the medical staff. Alongside the notice was a Spanish translation which urged the same notification of staff if the person happened to be “embarazado.”
    Now the tell-tale “o” at the end of that word refers to a male, and that would make the matter not so much a linguistic or even medical issue, but something the National Enquirer would scoop up.
    The Patient’s Bill of Rights posted at the entrance of the local hospital, refers to the right to receive treatment regardless of, among other things, one’s “race.” Whereas we might expect that word to be rendered as “raza,” it comes out as “carrera,” which means a race (as in NASCAR, marathon or sprint) or a career.
    And for several days, the Bank of Las Vegas time-and-temp sign carried the message, “We’re big athletic supporters.” We’re sure they meant that they belong to booster clubs and cheer on the home team. However, as any male who ever went out for sports will attest, “athletic supporter” carries a different meaning. Athletic supporters were not in the stands on Super Bowl Sunday but rather on the field, girding the waists of the ton of men that call themselves the Steelers offensive line.

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